Max Hodak Writings

What we owe to each other

December 2020

Though I believe in capitalism, I am not particularly individualistic: I’ve always believed that it would be far more fun to be successful alongside a group of friends rather than being the sole owner of something huge. Community is super important, and if you take this out further, a healthy society is a far richer substrate for creative expression than a sick one. It is hard to read stories about the terrible experiences many people have with the healthcare system in this country and not be outraged at the injustice of it, and somewhat more selfishly a stable society means a lower risk of my life being derailed by conflict.

On the other hand, I highly prize self-determination and my individual freedom. I have always believed that the role of government should be to create a space for us to live, not dictate precisely how.

At the intersection of these beliefs is a question I have spent several years thinking about and still don’t really understand. Consider a function called “responsibility”, which we can write as \(R(n)\) to mean “my responsibility to the n-th nearest person to me,” for some meaning of “nearest.” Now imagine taking the limit of the infinite series:

\[\Sigma_{n \to \infty} R(n)\]

The question is: does this limit converge? Put differently, how important should the total amount of consciousness in the universe be on how I prioritize others relative to my own life?

It’s easy to see that we have responsibilities towards our families and our immediate communities. Most cultures also have a sense of responsibility towards their fellow citizens of their country. But for most people things drop off quickly at their national border. This is probably due in part to collision with the principle of sovereignty, which is self-determination at the state level: it’s considered highly improper to meddle in another country’s affairs, and so if they have a starving children problem, it has to be up to them to accept aid or fix. The only thing a dysfunctional family likes less than itself is interference from outsiders.

But is this right? American doctrine at least since Truman, for one, has been built on an assumption that we have a moral obligation to disseminate and protect the values of freedom and democracy globally. (This is now one axis along which China is attempting to differentiate itself: we won’t tell you how to run your country as long as you won’t tell us how to run ours is a more contrarian take than most people realize in modern diplomacy. Whether or not it’s true, of course, is a different question.)

These questions aren’t new, or even particularly interesting. I have personal intuitions for the immediate issues there. I think where the real problems arise is in taking the $n \to \infty$ seriously.

Let’s say that we conclude that it is immoral to talk about going to Mars so long as there is a single homeless person in America. Let’s now say that we house every last person: does the presence of overseas homeless mean that Mars is still an immoral objective? If not, why not? Though many peoples’ day-to-day experiences give them different intuitions, it is hard to imagine arguing that a foreign life is worth anything less than a life here.

But now imagine that while we are fixing global homelessness, the world population grows by a factor of ten: now, instead of 8 billion people, there are 80 billion. Does a moral exploration of Mars require that our social policies be so effective that they allow us to get ahead of this growth process, ensuring that every new life is born into a world of prosperity, to unlimited scale?

One day, while listening through a new radio telescope on the dark side of the Moon we receive a message that finally tells us that we are not alone in the universe. But what we detect is not an intentional message, but instead incidental radio transmissions that allow us to get a snapshot into their lives on their planet, only a couple years delayed from our present. We realize that their lives are short and difficult, and given the fruits of our utopia we can help them. Is it once again immoral to pursue technological electives like Mars for ourselves while they suffer? Or more: are we obligated to help them? (Or alternatively, are we obligated to leave them alone? Why?)

One of my friends told me that, due to the intractability of the underlying problem, he thought it was about having a general orientation towards service versus self throughout life.

These are some of the questions embedded in the infinite series above. As I said at the beginning, I don’t know the answers. In particular, the straw man above is only useful for highlighting the point; it is not a statement about how the world actually works. Clearly there is incremental value in reducing homelessness locally and nationally, however we attribute global value. And, of course, what is right is certainly going to be different from how we collectively end up conducting ourselves. But for such an obvious question this seems undertheorized for modern practical use.

Relatedly, The Good Place is one of the best stories written for television of the last 20 years and is absolutely worth watching.